When I began this series I knew I would have to write about Charles Dickens (1812-70), but I kept putting it off, knowing how difficult the task would be. How could I work up the skill to describe such a protean writer? How could I convince the audience of the value of reading Dickens without turning the essay into a mass of quotations?
Although he wrote much else (he was a journalist for all his working life), it is for his fifteen novels, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1837 and ending with the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood thirty-three years later, that he will always be celebrated. In them he embodied both himself and the age; reading them you are scanning Dickens as well as the times. Not that he parades himself or writes autobiographical novels (aside from David Copperfield), but his vibrant character, with all his tremendous vitality, pervades everything he wrote. All his experience, transmogrified by his creative imagination, lives in his books.
The outstanding characteristic of Dicken's books is their life. I do not mean liveliness (although they are lively enough); I mean that every page is instinct with life, even when he's writing conventional descriptions (as in some of his early work), life that the reader senses in the language, the pacing, and in the characters, because Dickens himself was extraordinarily alive. We feel this especially in his rich cast of characters (he created some two thousand), his most enduring literary gift; we may forget plot details, but we never forget his characters. I believe that great novels depend on great characters, that the most essential gift of a writer is his ability to create interesting characters. It is characteristic of modern, condescending critics that they should disparage this gift, complaining that they are "flat," stock figures with one or two characteristics which they repeat whenever they appear. They are contrasted to "round" characters, who display the complexity of real people. The first thing to say about this criticism is that Dickens' two dimensional characters are not that flat, as comparison with the deliberate caricatures of Americans in Martin Chuzzlewit will show. Jefferson Brick and Colonel Driver, Lafayette Kettle, General Choke, the Mother of the Modern Gracchi, and so on, make up a glorious company of fools, and knaves brilliantly limned by Dickens as caricatures, clearly distinct from Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, Vincent Crummles and the Mantalinis, wonderful creations from Chuzzlewit as well as Nicholas Nickleby, who act as they do because they must, it is their nature. Tom Sawyer will illustrate this. In Huck Finn he plays the Mischievous Boy, a cliche. He is a shallow conformist, one who knows how far to go in going too far, and that's all he is. That's why he's kept out of the profound chapters when Huck and Jim are alone on the raft. We have all met people like him. In his '"flatness" he displays his "roundness" -- the character as he plays it is himself in all his dimensions.
Thus it is in life. How many people do we know who are "round"? Most of our acquaintances are "flat" in the sense that they exhibit a limited number of characteristics that we depend on to make our social intercourse possible. If we did not perceive people in simplified terms, if they did not present themselves like that, it would be difficult to maintain relationships. I may think of myself as a fascinatingly complex fellow, but I know very well that I appear to others as a man of a few gestures and attitudes, a garrulous old man.
It must be admitted, however, that Dickens' characters are not deep. We care about them, they touch us, but they do not move us deeply as Huck or Anna Karenina or Lord Jim do. Their great virtue is their vitality.
Let us see how that vitality combined with the writing itself makes a book live. The opening scene of Great Expectations takes place in the church yard beside the marshes where Pip, seven and small for his age, is looking at the graves of his parents and five little brothers, when an escaped convict, Magwitch, seizes him and makes the boy promise to bring him food and a file on the morrow. Magwitch threatens him:
There's a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open. I am keeping that young man from harming of you at the present moment, with great difficulty.
Pip's constant fear is made evident throughout the chapter:
Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the iron leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted.
So we are immediately drawn into the book, not just by characters and events, but by the writing, by the way everything is presented. There are three mentalities, three forms of consciousness operating here. The first is Pip's, shown by his terror in the passage just quoted. The essence of a child's fear is its absoluteness, undiluted by other thoughts and anxieties, as it would be in an adult's mind. Thus are we made fully aware of the child's consciousness. At the same time, we know that a grownup Pip is telling the story and looking back at his childish self. Note the first sentence in that last quotation, where this is explicit. Now we are aware of a second consciousness, mitigating our fears about Pip; we know he will survive and surmount his difficulties. There is a third consciousness there, the reader's. Magwitch's bloodthirsty description of the "young man" in the first quote has shown us that he is putting on an act, easing our concern before the older Pip does. Our reading of Magwitch's speech does it. So we are aware of the seven-year-old's feelings and of his consciousness of the people and events around him; we have the adult Pip's consciousness of the same things, showing them in another light, but unobtrusively so as not to override for us young Pip's perceptions. Finally, we have our own consciousness of everything, including Pip the boy and the man.
What this does is create, in a restricted space -- churchyard, home, marsh -- with a limited cast (four main characters), and in a short time (twenty-four hours), a thick narrative, rich in feeling, and awareness, that pulls us into the novel. Understand that Dickens did not carefully construct it. We know from his manuscripts that he usually did little emendation and revision. His creative process seemed to work like this: with the rudiments of a story and theme in mind, he went about his incredibly energetic life, absorbing scenes and experiences, and when he began to write everything flowed out of him, now fitted to the story, vivid experiences as he lived them in words.
Ages ago when I was a "Perfesser," I was listening to a colleague bloviate about the exalted qualities of literature when another interrupted him to say:
Dickens' morality is sentimentality, his plots are melodramas, his characters are two-dimensional, his language is journalistic, but he's the greatest English novelist!
I think he exaggerated Dickens' faults, but it is certainly true that Dickens has those faults -- not all at once and not all the time, but there are pages, even chapters in his novels, including the best ones, you will want to skip. Recently I reread Our Mutual Friend and found some of the last chapters unbearably cloying. Nevertheless, he is the greatest English novelist. Playing the ranking game can be silly, but it can also be illuminating. You have to consider the qualities you value, and you have to justify your valuation, and then you have to show how the writer exhibits those qualities. People with class pretensions have always tried to put him down, preferring dull writers like George Eliot, because they think he's vulgar. And so he is, thank God!
I have ranked the novels, not to play a judge's part, but as a helpful guide, hoping my readers will be encouraged to take them up. I read them twice to my family over a period of years. The best ones are built around a well-thought-out story with a strong theme embodied in a varied cast of interesting characters, and these are David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations with Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend close behind, followed by Dombey and Son. I visualize these books as great dark mansions with large halls and cozy little corners, winding staircases, high-ceilinged chambers and sunny parlors, attics filled with old trunks, musty cellars, and jolly kitchens, all echoing with the voices of numberless fascinating people. Enjoyable as the early novels are, they fall short of the top class because, lacking strong story lines, they are episodic, their themes are immature, and some of the vivid characters run away with the story. Nevertheless, they are very enjoyable. The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzelwit, and Oliver Twist fall into this category. The Old Curiosity Shop has some merit, but its central sentimentality is hard for modern readers to take. Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities seem to me the least characteristic and rewarding of his works. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is very interesting, and its tight, ironic style marks a startling departure for Dickens, but it was unfinished at his death. You could start with Pickwick and the early novels and then go on to Copperfield and the rest, or you could start with the best ones of his maturity and then go on to Pickwick and so on. But start somewhere!
Dickens' novels differ widely, and his total output presents the most varied aspect of any novelist I can think of, but one quality they all share -- vitality. *
"To say that the United States should be answerable for twenty-five millions of dollars without knowing whether the ways and means can be provided, and without knowing whether those who are to succeed us will think with us on the subject, would be rash and unjustifiable. Sir, in my opinion, it would be hazarding the public faith in a manner contrary to every idea of prudence." --James Madison